In the wake of last week’s tragedy, we’ve seen a lot of calls for “civility” in our public discourse. Now that we’ve been reminded how terrible actual violence can be, there are calls from all over to stay away from the loaded language that is so common from today’s politicians (“death panels“, “Don’t retreat, reload!“, etc.).
But for all the calls to reduce violent rhetoric and increase civility, there has been very little discussion of what the people who use these terms really mean when they use them. Via the Daily Dish, I found this article at Lawyers, Guns, and Money that attempts to include the intended audience in the definition of violent rhetoric, but in general I think there’s an assumption that violent rhetoric is like obscenity: tough to define ahead of time, but you can recognize it when you see it.
I think about [this quote] often, but I wanted to get it right, as I think it sums up civility in public or private discourse. [Mencken] laid down these rules doing a controversy with Upton Sinclair:
“[W]hen [a person] fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour-propre by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest — and perhaps, after all, right.”
Civility in discourse is not simply about language. It’s also about the approach that one takes toward those with whom they are arguing. The most soft-spoken, pacifist person can be uncivil in their arguments if they break those guidelines set out by Mencken. (I say this as someone who is guilty of this type of incivility in my arguments far more than I would like. I’m working on it.)
Today, we have a prime example of a tactic that has become commonplace among our political leaders, but very clearly falls outside of the realm of “civil discussion” as outlined by Mencken. From an interview with Rep. Steve King (R-IA) written up in Human Events (emphasis mine):
First, [King] blames ObamaCare on the Democrats’ overarching philosophical goal of “creating dependency.” He said in all areas of government, the Democrats “want to expand the dependency class because that’s what expands their political support.”
“What has made this a unique and great nation? It’s not been dependency. It’s been individualism,” said King. “And the Democrats are creating dependency, and we are trying to save individualism.”
Second, he said that the Democrats pushed through ObamaCare because of their “irrational Leftist lust for socialized medicine.”
“They can’t help themselves; it’s in their DNA. These people are Leftists. They don’t see this country the way that we do. Their idea of American Exceptionalism is yet to come,” he said.
There is nothing violent in his statements. This sentiment has been echoed so many times that I’ve started tuning out when I hear a Republican say “American Exceptionalism”, knowing what’s coming next. It’s one of the prevailing talking points of Republicans since Obama almost said that the U.S. wasn’t as exceptional as maybe some of its citizens believe it to be.
But is it a civil thing to day? Using Mencken’s guidelines, does it assume that the opponent is as decent as he is? No, King’s opponents are “irrational Leftists” who “don’t see the country” the same way as King. Does it assume that the opponent is as honest as he is? Again, no. King’s opponents are not driven by virtues like honesty or caring for their fellow citizens, they are subject only to their “irrational Leftist lusts”. Does it allow for even the possibility that his opponent might be right? Unsurprisingly, no.
It’s this type of rhetoric that worries me much more than Sarah Palin’s “Don’t retreat, reload”, or most any of the other war analogies that are so commonly deployed in political arguments. This type of rhetoric doesn’t openly encourage people to go out and shoot their elected representatives, it does something far more insidious. It convinces people (and keep in mind those with mental problems like Loughner are probably more susceptible to this convincing) that their opponents are threatening their way of life, and the very fabric of this great country. It takes away any possibility of civility by turning one’s opponents into monsters.
So I will join those voices who are calling for more civil discussion. But I urge people to think not only about the violent content of their words, but also about whether their words are promoting an atmosphere in which civilized discussion (as per Mencken) can take place at all.